On Tuesday, February 5, the Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation that could raise the minimum age to buy tobacco and vaping products from age 18 to 21. The bill, HB2748, would be the first change to legal smoking ages in 27 years. While the bill still awaits approval from Governor Northam, the 67–31 vote in favoring of raising the legal smoking age to 21 would have hugely impactful effects.
The law explicitly includes “tobacco product[s], nicotine vapor product[s], or alternative nicotine products[s],” with a clear emphasis to include vaporizers, e-liquids, and e-cigarette devices.
In addition to raising the legal smoking age to 21 (for both vaping and cigarettes), the law would also affect shipping regulations for vaporizer and nicotine products, as well as impose steep penalties for providing such devices to minors or consuming such items as a minor.
Similar to Canadian laws on vaping, the law would also require vaping products, juices, and e-liquids to display a prominent Surgeon General’s warning (similar to the one we now see on cigarettes).
Virginia, a state with historically lax tobacco regulations, raised the legal smoking age from 16 to 18 in 1991. The legal smoking age has been 18 years old for almost three decades. Raising the age to 21 would be state’s most major change to ATF access in almost thirty years.
But it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.
Juul Pods of the Industrial Revolution: Contextualizing Minimum Ages of Legal Access to Tobacco in U.S. History
The year is 1890. The United States is still young. In light of the newly burgeoning temperance movement, a new, long-lingering demon has come to our attention.
In 1890, the average American’s tobacco consumption is 35 cigarettes per capita. Perhaps in response to this, states began imposing age restrictions on tobacco consumption due to its disproportionate popularity with the youth.
That same year, 26 states established laws banning the sale of nicotine products to minors. These age restrictions, called Mandatory Legal Ages of Access (commonly referred to as MLAs), varied from 14 to 21 years old. By 1890, 14 states banned smoking to anyone under 21 years old. According to historical records accessed by the American Journal of Public Health, 21 was once the legal smoking age in one-third of all states.
Prior to tobacco lobbying reform in the early 1900s, 21 was the legal smoking age in one-third of all states.
Then came our good friend Philip Morris. It’s the year 1929, and Philip Morris is producing his very first cigarettes right here in Richmond, Virginia. (Phil was actually pretty progressive for his time, according to his Wikipedia entry, which claims he racially integrated factories before it was legally required, took pride in his heritage as son of an immigrant, and was one of the first brands to market large-scale products to women — really too bad about the whole tobacco thing.)
Nonetheless, just as the temperance movement gains momentum and America would undergo a bizarre decade-long alcohol ban and frenzied public panic over the specter of Reefer Madness, paradoxically, the anti-tobacco movement of the late 1900s is withering under political pressure until it eventually begins to dissipate into public ambivalence, cultural amnesia, and then, at long last, status quo.
Tobacco Law in 2019: The Roots of Our Moral Debate in the Present
The reason I’m telling you this is that now, in 2019, we’re once again engaged in a similar debate. So do we take the tone of my historical rival, an 1894 reporter for the Emporia Gazette perhaps such as myself, who covered one of the earliest smoking bans in the state of Iowa in his story “Cigarettes Banned from Lawrence,” and quoted his subject as saying,
“The council justified the interference with consumer sovereignty on the dual grounds that cigarette smoking had ‘become so prevalent among the young men and boys of this city as to be injurious to them, noxious to others and to impair the usefulness and impede the progress of the public schools’ and that existing law had proved inadequate to protect the public.”
Or perhaps do we take the side of Melanie Griffith, who famously remarked:
“I like smoking! I mean, God, I quit everything else, can’t I smoke?”
As with all legislative and issue-based conflicts, this is America. And due to the paradoxical nature of a country which somehow holds both democracy and rebellion as equally-unshakable principles in which we find our identity, we are once again tied between our desire to let people have their freedoms and our desire to hold “freedoms” in check with restrictive systems that inconvenience a few but reduce harm for all (‘scientifically’ speaking?). But it’s never that simple, is it?
In a quote that I have a very difficult time believing is from Confucius (but according to the internet, is), “he” states, “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”
But does the superior man understand himself? Or are we more a la Reefer Madness Glen Cook, who says, “More evil gets done in the name of righteousness than any other way.”
Morality and manufactured rage aside, we do have some facts. Electronic cigarette and vaping companies were started, probably, with good intentions- as aids to smoking cessation or as ways to reduce the harm of tobacco consumption through new technology. Unfortunately, science has not totally backed those prodigal promises and we find ourselves, again, back in 1890.
But it’s a lot more complicated. Our democratic and corporate systems are intertwined in different ways, and the manner of shaping public opinion (specifically regarding substance use, due to longstanding regulation and complex factors of embedded cultural discourse) are more multifaceted and amorphous than they have arguably ever been. In brief, it’s not simple.
Camel Joe 2.0? Why This is Happening (And Why It Matters)
If you’ve noticed the word “Juul” covered a lot in the media lately, there’s a reason. In December of last year, Juul Labs received $12.8 billion (yes, with a b) in funding from Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. This investment, which Silicon Valley Journal notes was “by far the biggest investment ever in a U.S. venture-backed company,” gave Altria a 35% ownership stake in Juul Labs.
Perhaps in response to this- or perhaps regardless- on Tuesday, January 5, the Virginia House of Delegates voted 67–31 in favor of HB 2748, a proposed bill that would raise the legal age for cigarette and vaping product purchase, consumption, mailing, and exchange from 18 to 21. The bill, proposed January 17 (we had this long government shutdown thing in between) still has to be approved by Governor Northam.
If it passes? Things might not be looking so cool for Juul. And the government might invoke your legal access to your smoke. Is that bad or for the best? It doesn’t seem like it’s a joke.
Regardless, the rate of vaping among children (yes, children) under age 18 has nearly doubled in the past year alone, and 95% of smokers start before the age of 21. This law would, ideally, attempt to counter this statistical trend.
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Kirk Cox states, “The Surgeon General has characterized teenage vaping as an ‘epidemic,’ with one-out-of-five high school seniors using these products,”
“By raising the minimum age for purchase to 21, this [lessens] the chances of teenagers obtaining vaping products from friends and classmates who are already 18.”
This tale is to be continued, as always with both news and with history.